The unit of study of historical fiction for fourth and fifth grade students is something a little different. Yes, they have written in fiction and even done narrative writing over the years, but this genre is different in that it needs to have some research along with the normal writing skills. I recently visited a fifth grade classroom as they were starting this unit. Today, I am going to share with you what I saw this teacher and the students doing to begin the unit.
So many decisions have to be made before this unit even begins. I realized that the teacher had decided to use the social studies unit of study as the basis for this writing unit. She felt that the students would get their background and much of their research while studying that content area. However, she did not use that era of time to model or 'teach' the form of this genre.
She started off one day by just discussing the difference between nonfiction writing and historical fiction writing. The students then made individual lists of ways they were different. This list was to give the teacher an idea of where the children were with their knowledge and where she should start her teaching.
The next day she shared with them the book they would be using as the read-aloud for the month. It was Number The Stars by Lois Lowry. They would be looking at it not just as a reading tool but also as a writing tool. Before they began the book, they read a piece called: "A Bright Star Over Denmark". This gave them some background knowledge of this era.
After reading and discussing some of Number The Stars, they all had questions. That was good! So they went to their seats and started listing those questions in their notebooks. Now it was time to do some investigating. Each table of students was given a box of 8-10 books. The books were a variety of nonfiction, such as biography or autobiography, and historical fiction. Their job was to put them into two piles: Nonfiction in one and Historical Fiction in the other.
They worked on this as a group for several minutes. Next, each group picked one book from each pile. Going around the room, a child from each group explained why they put that book into a certain pile. This became a great discussion as various groups had different ideas. The characteristics of each genre became more and more clear. A chart was made next. One side of the chart had characteristics of nonfiction writing and the other side had characteristics of historical fiction writing. They also came up with a "middle ground" where things were in both genres.
One thing we emphasized was WHY are we making this chart? Some students said, "So we can do well on the state test." Some said, "So you know we were listening." But the real answer was, "Because we are going to be writing this genre and need to know what it looks like!" Again, we are talking REAL reasons to learn something...not just for testing!
Students seem to be excited about learning more about Number The Stars and about being authors of historical fiction!